Kris Bowers, Daytime Emmy® winner and composer on Netflix’s Dear White People, discusses a passion for music and collaborating with Justin Simien.
At the age of 28, composer Kris Bowers already has a career to be envious of. Before signing on as the composer of Dear White People, the Julliard graduate won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, performed at the White House, debuted at #1 on the iTunes Jazz Charts, recorded with Jay-Z and Kanye West for their Watch The Throne album, performed with Aretha Franklin, and most recently won a Daytime Emmy.
Still Kris always knew that he wanted to end up in the world of film and television scoring. Once he had the opportunity to work with director Justin Simien on the television adaptation of Dear White People, a film that he responded to strongly, he knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Kris spoke with Awards Daily TV to discuss what it was like to collaborate with director Justin Simien, his passion for film composition, and the freedom he was allowed throughout his creative process.
What first inspired you to work on Dear White People with director Justin Simien?
I had seen the film when it first came out and was a big fan of it. I remember hearing about rumors of a TV series happening but ignored it because I was just excited to eventually see it. Getting the chance to actually work on it was the farthest thing from my mind, but once I got a call from my agent to submit something, I was just so excited because the show spoke to me so directly as a young black man and as a young artist.
They sent me a Spotify playlist with about 50 tracks, a script for the pilot that Justin had curated along with the show bible, and they asked me to write a piece of music inspired by all of that. It was difficult because the playlist ranged from Sonny Rollins to Trent Reznor. I ended up writing something I felt encompassed all of those sounds. It’s a funny thing because that track is one of the things that convinced them to hire me, but the music I ended up writing was entirely different stylistically.
You’ve mentioned that you know the composer of the original film Kathryn Bostic. When you signed on to the series, did you use her score as inspiration or did you set out to create an entirely different musical landscape for the series?
We ended up doing the latter but that was from a suggestion of Justin’s. I had actually been listening to Kathryn’s score before I even knew I was on the show, and I performed in a show last year where I played a couple of her pieces. I was expecting Justin to want to go down the route again, but we had a conversation about how he has always been inspired by Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee, specifically in their use of music. That inspired him to juxtapose these young and mostly black and brown people with either very traditional classical music or classical jazz music because those are the genres you wouldn’t expect.
The stylistic choices from the way the show was written and shot like how the characters looked into the camera allowed us to write interesting pieces like the opulent orchestral elements and not have them feel melodramatic. It didn’t feel like we were trying too hard which allowed us to have a lot of fun with that decision.
What was the experience like working with director Justin Simien?
What I love most about working with Justin is that he is a very musical person and has actually been making music as a hobby for a while. For him, music is very pivotal to his creative process, and he creates these massive playlists that really set the stage for his projects. Other directors I have worked with have treated music as an afterthought. Because Justin appreciates the work that goes into it, we had multiple conversations early on that me feel like an important part of the process. It fed me creatively because I understood the importance behind specific scenes. We are immediately able to create this vocabulary where we can work within a palette very quickly.
I tried to stay open to everything and open to any sort of curveball that Justin might throw at me. For example, we established before Episode 1 that we were going to only stick with traditional classical music and classical jazz, but by Episode 2, I got a call from Justin where he told me he decided to throw in a Trent Reznor track for a party scene as temp. It’s already breaking our rules. I love just trying to be open to whatever.
Your score played an integral role in introducing each character to the audience specifically because each episode focused on a different character with unique musical elements. What was that decision process like?
We started having discussions about the different scenes pretty early on. I was visiting the set when they first started shooting, and I was writing themes and sending Justin ideas so some of the conversations were taking place before and during shooting. One of the conversations we had that sticks out was on Coco’s theme and how she is always moving quickly because she fears that people will see her as who she is, a black girl from Chicago. So she is always putting on this air trying to make sure no one finds her out. We tried to write this piece that has a lot of movement to it.
Another notable conversation was on Reggie, and how his episode is based in this idea of the Black Panthers and a militant person of color so we figured we had to go with late 50’s jazz to get that feeling. A lot of those conversations happened very early on, and once post-production started, they were going pretty quickly like a regular TV show schedule.
The musical landscapes for many of the characters were easy to define, but one character I was curious about was Sam. What was the inspiration behind her soundtrack?
Sam’s score is the most in-between because that is who she is as a person. Not only is she biracial, but she is also constantly in this position of speaking out for the Black community while secretly dating a white man which results in these feelings of shame and guilt. She is constantly in this in-between space. This was the same with the ending of the season when all of the characters come together to a score infused with classical and jazz and other elements. In the end she is symbolic of that melting pot.
What character did you have the most fun with and get the most creative with?
For me it is a tie between Reggie and Troy. Reggie is a little more obvious because his music is all of this late 50s era jazz. I opened his episode with a song I tried to write in the style Salt Peanuts and to be able to write something that was so active in bebop and have a director be OK with it under dialogue was pretty cool. After finishing the season that episode five, Reggie’s episode, stuck with me the most. I always knew the series was going to be good but after that episode I knew it was special.
The same thing with Troy, writing his music was the first moment where it dawned on me that I would have as much creative freedom as I did. I was writing this active piano fuse piece, and it’s under a conversation Troy had with his father Dean Fairbanks. Because it had so many notes and was placed under a conversation, I knew any other director would have asked me “What were you thinking?” but Justin thought it was great. That’s when I knew they would let me do whatever I wanted with this show and it was pretty awesome.
This was your first major television series as a composer. What was it like jumping into a project of this scope and looking back would you have done anything differently?
I think there was a lot more freedom than I initially expected. In previous projects, I was used to writing things and having notes come back. Once I even received one for a previous project that read “Less musicality.” For Dear White People Justin and Yvette [Lee Bowser, Executive Producer] pushed me to be creative, and Netflix gave us the freedom to work.
The best way to describe it was as one of those experiences of building the car as you drive it. I had to hire an assistant and try to figure out how to create a workflow with him. I’m so used to doing things by myself, and I am such a perfectionist. With this I had no choice but to pass it on when it was time, so I learned to trust the team I build around me to take whatever I did and make it great.
You’ve mentioned before that from a very young age you have been inspired by the power of music in film. Is there a particular score that you looked to for inspiration throughout Dear White People?
I watched 2001: A Spacey Odyssey a few times, and I watched A Clockwork Orange and 25th Hour and Barry Lyndon. Those films I watched on repeat leading up to working on the series mainly to see how these composers were able to use these very different and unexpected juxtapositions between visuals and sound. In one conversation with Justin, I brought up how I was inspired by A Clockwork Orange and how the film had these young guys who were terrorizing a town to baroque era classical music but on electronic synths which is weird but in the end works very well.
The through line in my work for Dear White People is that the music can exist on its own. Every cue existed as a song by itself, and I think that was something that we were strict on ourselves over. The idea of trying to score comedy with cute little beats and moments that the music catches is not what we were trying to do. Every time I wrote something that did that, Justin pushed me to really write something that I could listen to by myself and still be happy with which as a composer you never get that freedom in a normal setting.
You’ve been working in the music industry in some capacity for your entire adult life. Was it always a goal of yours to enter the world of film and TV composition?
My parents and I laugh about this because I told them when I was 11 that I wanted to go to school for jazz piano, and after that, tour with a few different artists and then put an album out and then begin film scoring. Somehow that is actually what is happening, and I don’t know why that was always my plan. My dad being in film and TV, he’s a writer. It was so important that we see films when they come out and me being a musician at such a young age that’s how I connected was through the music. I always noticed film scores and always knew it was something I wanted to do at some point.
You have a very fresh voice as a composer, so I am curious to hear what direction you would like film and TV composition to take in the future?
I’m really happy to be making music at a time when these creative shifts are already happening. One of the main catalysts is that we currently have all of these musical artists currently transitioning into film scoring. This has led to the industry welcoming and championing original voices, and there isn’t as much of an expectation to evoke specific sounds or established composers. All of a sudden you have somebody like Mica Levi scoring Jackie, and I’ve never heard strings written that way.
You have these people who were given the opportunity to write for these larger platforms now the medium is producing more unique sounds because they did not come from the normal ranks. I just want to be a part of that because I didn’t work for or study under anybody else, and I’m coming at it from my only perspective and so trying to be another amongst many symbols of that would be great.
Where would you like to take future seasons of Dear White People musically?
In the season finale, the piece I wrote that opened the episode was really influenced by Steve Reich and his unique work, so I incorporated elements of his to see if it would work and the rest of the creative team loved it. So next season, I would love to play with other genres of music, different sects of classical music and jazz and being strict to them without becoming fusion-y. It would be fun to exhaust the world of classical and jazz and dive into minimalist music or experiment with 12 tone and abstract classical music as well as free or big band era jazz.
Now that the first season of Dear White People has been released what projects do you have lined up next?
Recently, I have been working on a number of projects with Kobe Bryant who post-basketball has been getting more involved in the world of film and TV. Currently we have been working on some shorts for ESPN, and he has some other things he is planning for later this year.
Outside of TV I am also working on a tribute to the Ray Charles album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” I’ve been working with fashion designer Mark McNairy, and together, we’ve tapped a number of amazing guest artists. I am going to produce the album and rewrite all of the songs and on top of recording the music we are hoping to have a conversation about the original album. Basically Ray Charles wanted to create a country western album, and his label told him no because to them he was simply an R&B artist. Once they let him make it was incredibly successful, which I found particularly relatable to me because I try to operate in all of these different worlds. I am constantly told as a Black artist that I should just stay in my lane.
At the end of the day how would you describe your musical style as an artist?
I would say that I’m an artist that is always trying to say something that connects people on an emotional level whether that’s with my own albums or with film scores. It is all about trying to connect people on a kinetic, visceral, and emotional level. Whether or not I accomplish that remains to be seen.
The first season of Dear White People currently streams on Netflix.